Kidnapped: pinned by the sword and the wall

For the families and friends of Colombia's kidnapping victims, hope tempers the horror and the anger

Angela Mendez prepares to read a message over the radio to her husband who was kidnapped 18 months ago. Radio Nacional broadcasts messages from relatives of kidnapping victims trying to give comfort to those who are held captive.  

BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- She does not know if her husband is listening, but Claudia Ponto is determined to share the good news.

"You are the proud grandfather of eight beautiful puppies," she says into a microphone. "The dog decided to give birth at four in the morning in Carlos Andres's bed."

The studio of Radio Nacional is the only place Ponto can talk to her husband, who is one of hundreds of kidnapped Colombians held captive by groups of guerrillas, paramilitaries or criminals. In the hope her husband is allowed to tune in, Ponto tries to keep him up to date on what is happening back home.

"Love, when you hear this message it will be the day before our son's birthday," she continues. "I want you to know that I bought him a present in both of our names just like we used to. We will cut the cake and spend time with him. Love, even though you are not here physically, I know you will be here in spirit."

Outside the studio, Angela Mendez reads over her own message. She sits squeezed among other wives, mothers, brothers and children of kidnap victims also waiting to address the microphone. Mendez's husband disappeared 18 months ago as he drove his car on a busy Bogota street. She has heard nothing from him since.

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Her friends have told her not to have hope, she said. They suspect her husband was seized by guerrillas and has been recruited into their ranks. Mendez refuses to believe them. She thinks her husband is a prisoner and that he draws strength from hearing her voice on the radio.

"At the beginning, it was difficult. I couldn't even read [my words]. It was something very terrible," she said. "But now I send the messages with faith he will get them."

"[The families] say that for them, this is their daily nourishment, their daily spiritual nourishment," said Viviana Esguerra of the private anti-kidnapping organization, Pais Libre, which sponsors the radio program.

They try to sound upbeat, to encourage their loved ones that they will soon be free. Many break down in mid-sentence, their voices cracking under the weight of the pain of separation.

"Silvio, we pray to God that you will be released," one woman struggles to say between sobs. She stops and covers her face with her palm, receiving a hand of comfort from the radio host. She will get another chance to record her greeting. In the meantime, a young girl takes her turn.

"Hi there, this is Pupi talking. Mommy couldn't come because she had to do other things, but I am here to support you and give you strength. We love you very much. Bye."

Twice a week, families of the kidnapped repeat this somber ritual at Radio Nacional. The growing crowds of people who line the corridors rehearsing their comments are a testament to how in Colombia kidnapping has become an institution.

Raul Reyes, spokesman for the FARC guerrillas, denies his group practices kidnapping. Instead, he says, the FARC "retains" the rich until they pay a "tax."  

Children are becoming targets

Every three hours someone is kidnapped somewhere in Colombia, according to Pais Libre. More than half the world's kidnappings take place in Colombia, according to the British Medical Journal, and the country is on pace to set a new record this year.

Colombia is projected to see more than 3,000 cases by December, nearly double the number of people kidnapped in 1991, one of the worst years of drug-related violence led by the notorious Cali and Medellin drug cartels.

Pais Libre believes that figure is grossly underestimated. Many families do not report kidnappings because they fear that involving the police could endanger their relatives.

The majority of the victims -- more than 55 percent -- are seized by leftist guerrilla groups that use the ransoms to fund their insurgencies. Many victims are grabbed at sporadic rebel checkpoints on rural highways. Some are taken prisoner by criminal gangs in the cities and later sold for a "finder's fee" to guerrilla forces.

The largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), refuses to call the practice "kidnapping." The FARC said it "retains" the rich and charges them a "tax."

"When a person takes away something from another for a lucrative personal interest, that is kidnapping," said Raul Reyes, the FARC's chief spokesman. "But when taxes are applied for a political or a social goal or for the transformation of a society, that is taxing. Those are simply taxes."

Earlier this year the FARC announced "Law 002," a decree ordering all Colombians who earn more than $1 million a year to pay a percentage to the rebels or risk being taken captive.

"It is against our principles to use force to get them to pay taxes, but unfortunately when they don't pay voluntarily, we have to take measures that we don't like, measures that go against our revolutionary principles," said Reyes.

Not only the wealthy are victims of kidnapping, though More and more of the victims come from the middle class, and more and more of them are children.

Three-year-old Andres Felipe Navas was snatched from his home in Bogota by armed men who walked in and tied up his grandparents and his aunt  

$4 million for a 3-year-old

On the morning of April 7, 2000, armed men marched into the Bogota home of 3-year-old Andres Felipe Navas, tied up the boy's grandparents and his aunt and announced they were taking away the young child.

They demanded the keys and papers to the family's car and drove off with the boy and the live-in maid. Police later claimed that the maid was in fact a traitor -- the key to a well-planned kidnapping by FARC guerrillas.

The day of the attack, Andres's unmarried mother, Marisol Suarez, 24, was in a small village outside the capital, performing required service for her medical degree. Her parents called to tell her the news, but they hid the terrible truth.

"They told me it was my youngest sister [who was kidnapped]," Suarez said. "When I arrived home, they said, 'We didn't tell you the whole truth. It was your son they took away.' It hit me very hard. I could not believe it. Never could I have imagined that my 3-year-old child could be kidnapped. Never."

The kidnappers first called a few hours after the attack. They asked for Marisol to travel to Mesetas, a town inside a FARC-controlled demilitarized zone the government ceded to the rebels two years ago as an incentive for peace talks. They said they needed Marisol to treat wounded guerrillas -- and they said they would free Andres if she came.

The police urged her not to go. They believed it was merely a ploy to take the mother captive, too.

When Marisol failed to travel to the rebel zone, the kidnappers demanded $4 million for the boy's release. Though the Suarez family is wealthy and lives in a sumptuously furnished house in an affluent neighborhood, Marisol said they do not have enough for such a ransom.

Ominously, the kidnappers have since cut off contact with the family. All ransom demands, along with details on when and where to pay them, have ceased.

"Unfortunately, since April 7 we have had no proof that he is alive. They wouldn't let us talk to him on the telephone unless we paid them 40 percent of the ransom, but we didn't have that kind of money. So unfortunately, we have had no news of him."

In July, Attorney General Alfonso Gomez Mendez stunned Colombians with evidence that Andres and another young kidnap victim, 9-year-old Clara Pantoja, were being held inside the FARC's demilitarized zone.

Confronted on national television by the mothers of the victims, the FARC's Reyes asserted that his forces do not kidnap children. But he promised to look further into the matter, and he said he would have an answer in 10 days. He has yet to respond.

Marisol Suarez said she would gladly travel to FARC territory to find out what has happened to Andres, if the FARC command would receive her.

"I think that the life of a child has no price," she said. "But we can't leave the boy there, or let them hurt him in any way. We will do anything to get him back. Unfortunately, in this country, the life of a child does have a price."

Andres Navas is one of 126 children kidnapped in the first six months of 2000, according to Pais Libre statistics. Young people have increasingly become enticing targets for armed groups, the organization said, because they usually trigger prompt payment.

"A child is a much easier victim, much more vulnerable, one who is not likely to have a violent reaction," said Pais Libre project director Juan Francisco Mesa. "Besides, it puts families against the wall, especially the parents, who quickly yield to the extortionists' pressure, fearing for the health of their child."

In recent years another disturbing trend has materialized: Families who pay the guerrillas' ransoms to free their loved ones become victims a second time.

The children of Rigoberto Lopez are again trying to free their 83-year-old father. Lopez was kidnapped in March 1999 by Colombia's second-largest rebel force, the National Liberation Army (ELN). He was held for four days before the family offered to exchange one of Lopez's sons for the elderly man. The son then remained in captivity in his father's place for 45 days, until the family could gather the ransom money.

On June 22, 2000, the senior Lopez was again kidnapped, this time by right-wing paramilitaries.

"They said that whoever pays the guerrillas must also pay the paramilitaries," said another of Lopez's sons, Fabio. "We are between the sword and the wall. If you are kidnapped by guerrillas, you have to pay to be released. Then you have to leave the country or remain totally poor, because next the paramilitaries will come and you must pay again."

Marleny Orjuela Manjarres' brother was kidnapped by the FARC two years ago. Instead of holding him for ransom, the guerrillas will exchange the police officer only for guerrillas held by the government.  

'The guerrillas touched our hearts'

The complexity of Colombia's kidnapping phenomenon has bred some unlikely alliances.

Marleny Orjuela Manjarres has developed a close relationship with the guerrillas who are holding her brother Alexander prisoner.

Her brother, a police officer, was seized in August 1998 during an attack by FARC rebels on the police station of Miraflores, in eastern Colombia. Under siege by hundreds of guerrillas, Alexander and 125 other police and army troops surrendered after a two-day battle.

Two years later, Alexander and more than 500 government forces from across the country remain behind rebel lines. The FARC said it will release them only in exchange for imprisoned guerrillas, a proposal the government has repeatedly rejected.

Desperate to get word of her brother, Marleny Manjarres and other prisoners' relatives decided to approach the guerrillas directly.

"At the beginning, of course, we were very angry," Manjarres said. "You must understand, this has been a process. Many mothers understand that we should help stop the war, and to do this you can't hate [the rebels]."

The guerrillas agreed to let the families send letters and packages to their loved ones. Now, once a month, relatives give small bundles of books, shampoo, toothpaste, photographs and other personal items to Manjarres, who takes them to FARC territory.

"The guerrillas touched our hearts," Manjarres said. "They are soldiers, too. We understand that they have lost families, too. Many of them haven't seen their families for a long time because their families live [in government controlled areas]. They are also suffering the effects of this war."

Hernan Cano, who was held by guerrillas for three months, broadcasts a message of hope for his friends who are still captive  

'My heart is with you always'

Other families, who cannot send letters, feel powerless to help their loved ones. They pin their hopes on reaching the kidnapped through the radio.

Their words are not in vain, say former kidnap victims.

Hernan Cano, who was held by guerrillas for three months before being released, heard three messages from his wife.

"It brought me back to life," he said. "But it did make me cry a lot."

On this day, Cano has come to the radio station to encourage his friends still in rebel hands. During his captivity he often led discussions of philosophy with fellow prisoners to keep their spirits high. Now, on the other side of freedom, it is a task he feels obliged to continue.

"My heart is with you always," he reads into the microphone. "It's impossible to describe the joy that freedom has brought me. God willing, you too will soon be free. We miss you."

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